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Teaching Safe Sleep Practices in Shelters

News & Events

Teaching Safe Sleep Practices in Shelters

Separate sleep environments for mother and baby are a tenet of the Kohl's Safe to Sleep program.Madison, Wisconsin - That the Salvation Army building on East Washington Ave. in Madison used to be a school is fitting, because the mothers of young children seeking shelter there are learning skills that can help keep their babies safe while they sleep.

American Family Children's Hospital safety and injury prevention educator Rishelle Eithun has been working with Salvation Army family shelter clients and staff to teach safe sleep practices to mothers whose greatest concern is where they will sleep that night, not how.

The initiative grew out of the Children's Hospital Safety Center's Safe to Sleep campaign, which was developed with input and financial support from Kohl's.

"We brought together a task force of people and organizations that would be able to help us get a clear, consistent message to our community about the best practice safe sleep recommendations," Rishelle says. "The homeless shelter was one group that was invited to be part of our task force, and that is how BJ and I connected."

Safe Sleep Tips

  1. Lay your baby on their back to sleep to reduce the risk of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome).
  2. Use a safe crib with a firm, tight-fitting mattress covered with a crib sheet and nothing else in it.
  3. To keep your baby warm, use a sleep sack (wearable blanket).
  4. Use a tight-fitting, firm mattress with a fitted crib sheet.

BJ is BJ Doran, who for the past nine years has worked to provide temporary shelter for homeless individuals and families. The East Washington Ave. facility where she works can accommodate about 100 people, and although she didn't have precise occupancy statistics, BJ suggests that every night is a busy one.

Local statistics on homelessness support that conclusion. In 2012, 3,382 individuals stayed at least one night in a Dane County shelter program. That figure includes 1,436 people in families, meaning at least one adult and one child together.

The Salvation Army is the intake point for all of them. Anyone who needs to stay in a Dane County shelter starts there. Doran gestures to the old St. Patrick's grade school classrooms, many of which have mattresses leaning against the walls that will be on the floors that night for people to use, and says during the cold nights of winter, when no one is turned away, the hallway floors are filled with cots and mattresses.

Families sleep on the second floor and can stay for 90 days. During that time BJ and her staff work to place them in permanent housing and help them find jobs, and also offer lessons in safe parenting techniques. Rishelle's experience with American Family Children's Hospital's Safe Kids Madison Coalition dovetailed perfectly with the Salvation Army's parenting initiatives, so BJ arranged to have Rishelle come to the family shelter every 90 days to talk about best-practice sleep environments.

"Keeping the environment free of pillows, blankets and toys, placing the baby on her back to sleep, and giving the baby her own sleep environment while keeping her within arm's reach," Rishelle says, recounting the lessons she passes along to the shelter clients.

Blankets for sleeping infants were common in the shelter.

"During the winter months more families were likely to use blankets to keep their babies warm," Rishelle says. "And we know blankets pose a suffocation hazard."

The solution? SleepSacks, which are blankets that infants wear like shirts. To see a baby in a SleepSack is to be reminded what the word "swaddling" means, as the garment winds around the child and attaches snugly, with no loose, hazardous material to spare.

"They're like a bag with arms," BJ jokes. "They keep the baby all cuddled up so she doesn't get tangled up in the blankets."

Providing distinct sleeping environments was another challenge at the family shelter, with few cribs and mothers who understandably want to keep their babies close, even while sleeping. But "co-sleeping" is another sleep hazard against which the Safety Center warns. In fact, in a study published in the August 2014 edition of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Pediatrics designated shared sleeping arrangements as the biggest cause of sleep-related infant deaths.

So Rishelle arranged to deliver Pack 'n' Plays to the shelter. Pack 'N' Plays are standalone, portable bassinets with fitted sheets that mothers can set up right next to their beds, allowing them to keep a close eye on their babies without the risks posed by both mother and child sharing a bed.

Any mother in the family shelter who wants a Pack 'N' Play can have one, and they can keep them when they leave the shelter.

"It would be something they would have to borrow," BJ says. "Here they can take it along with them."

"Families at the shelter lack resources when leaving," Rishelle adds. "The Kohl's Safe to Sleep program is able to provide Pack 'N' Plays for families in need of a safe sleep environment when they leave. The Pack 'n' Plays and SleepSacks help encourage these safe sleep practices."

Date Published: 05/22/2015